The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In New Orleans, scandal tarnishes a jazz star and the libraries he was asked to help

Irvin Mayfield is accused of improperly diverting money meant to aid libraries to his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which helped pay for his Carnegie Hall debut and other events. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Irvin Mayfield made his Carnegie Hall debut in October 2012, and it was quite a star-studded affair. Dignitaries spoke, guest stars such as Aaron Neville appeared alongside the young trumpeter, and even CNN's Soledad O'Brien emceed. For a local boy growing up in New Orleans, the achievement was undeniable. Even local station WWOZ marked the occasion by broadcasting the concert live for hometown listeners.

Yet the performance had a price tag: more than $20,000 before travel, production and talent costs, which could reach up to tens of thousands of dollars. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), Mayfield’s nonprofit organization, rented the venue, according to Michael Tomczak, a Carnegie Hall spokesman. Mayfield threw the party, it appears, for himself.

The lavish spending during this time by NOJO has made the Grammy-winning trumpeter the target of a three-year federal probe following media reports that showed how he and business associate Ronald Markham directed more than $1 million from a private foundation tasked to aid the city’s beleaguered public library system to NOJO, where both men have drawn six-figure salaries. The situation has enraged the city’s philanthropic community and shrunk library donations. A financial audit released late last year shows that NOJO paid Mayfield’s production company hundreds of thousands of dollars. An accounting of where and how money was spent was practically nonexistent.

In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Mayfield owes the city an apology, calling the shifting of funds from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation to NOJO “improper and a serious breach of trust.”

“While an agreement is in place to reimburse the Library Foundation in part, this scandal has substantially damaged the Library Foundation’s brand, its endowment and its relationship with the New Orleans Public Library System. Ultimately, kids lost out,” Landrieu said.

In the years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Mayfield, 38, branded himself his city’s ambassador, performing benefit concerts, meeting presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, playing prestigious stages throughout the world, and earning a seat on the National Council on the Arts. He also sold his name and likeness to Bourbon Street’s Royal Sonesta Hotel, which opened Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, a namesake club his team started booking in 2009.

“Irvin was at the forefront of taking our story nationally and even globally, and that mattered,” said City Council member LaToya Cantrell. “He played a critical role in showing that New Orleans needed to rebound and its own people were spearheading that growth. You can’t take that away.”

Mayfield’s fall from grace results from the usual hubris of celebrity, but in this case it was also enabled by the city’s infamous laissez-faire attitude. Mayfield and Markham, also childhood friends, were subject to little to no oversight from board members of the Library Foundation and NOJO. Part of the reason was Mayfield’s charm and talent, but another reason was because many of the people tasked with policing the foundation had conflicting interests as well.

“He plays their private parties, he plays their bar mitzvahs. For those people to go on record and admit they were wrong means they would have to take a long hard look in the mirror to say, ‘This guy got one over on me,’ ” said a music industry executive who asked not to be named for business reasons. “What made them give this guy a pass? I think they now have the self-awareness that they [messed] up big time.”

A federal probe

The scandal first erupted last year when WWL-TV, a CBS affiliate, revealed that Mayfield and Markham rewrote the bylaws of the Library Foundation board so they could divert funds to NOJO. Last month, WWL further revealed that Mayfield spent $18,000 of foundation money on a five-night trip to New York in 2012. According to a foundation audit in May, he billed the foundation for rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, meals, liquor, limousine rides and a single breakfast costing $1,400.

“There was nothing that suggested [the trip] had anything to do with the Library Foundation,” said Bob Brown, president of the foundation’s board. In May, the foundation sent repeated letters to Mayfield and his attorney demanding immediate payment; the first two letters were returned unopened, Brown said.

Mayfield and Markham stepped down from the board, and this month, Mayfield resigned his post as NOJO's artistic director. NOJO has not admitted wrongdoing, but in May it worked out a voluntary agreement with the foundation to return $483,000 in installments stretching into May 2021. NOJO also pledged to raise the rest of the $1.1 million through benefit concerts. But it is questionable whether Mayfield's drawing power is strong enough to eliminate the deficit and whether he will perform with the group at all since he cut ties with NOJO this month.

“The deal will never be paid back, because Irvin’s concert fees are not comparable to that payment plan, ” said the music industry executive. In June, a citizens group, Make NOJO Pay, erected a billboard one block from NOJO headquarters to raise public awareness and demand full repayment.

“I do not believe that I have violated any law,” Mayfield said on his Facebook page July 5.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sources told The Post that the U.S. attorney for New Orleans launched an investigation in June 2013. Brown confirmed that the agency subpoenaed attorneys working with the foundation. Rafael Goyeneche, a former state’s attorney for Louisiana who heads the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization exposing white-collar crime and public corruption, said the case started when a whistleblower contacted the group in May 2013; he then brought the allegations to the U.S. attorney.

“The fact that an investigation is still active three years after our initial referral indicates that they have found violations. There is a strong likelihood that criminal wrongdoing was found,” Goye­neche says.

New bylaws, new powers

Many of the city’s philanthropists described Mayfield as actively courting them to get on boards of some of the city’s most prestigious institutions with the intention, they said, to get them to eventually steer their money toward his personal projects, particularly the New Orleans Jazz Market, a $10 million facility that would serve as NOJO’s headquarters. His biography during this period swelled with honorary university degrees, board appointments and artist-in-residence honors. By last year, Mayfield sat on at least a dozen boards.

Mayfield got the library honor in 2007 through Daniel Packer, vice chairman of NOJO, who advised then-mayor Ray Nagin to appoint the trumpeter chairman of the Library Foundation’s board of directors. Soon Mayfield not only headed the Library Foundation board, but also the library system as well, putting him in administrative control of the libraries and their endowment. He ousted top librarians and eventually the director of the Library Foundation. In a 2009 interview with Offbeat, a local music magazine, Mayfield shrugged off critics, saying, “I challenge people to stop questioning why I’m doing things and start questioning what they’re doing to improve the city.”

Under Mayfield, two-thirds of the foundation board seats were eliminated. There were conflicts at the start: One of the board’s new members was Markham, also the chief executive of NOJO. Another member was Dan Forman, the son of Ron Forman, a local power broker who happens to be chairman of NOJO’s board.

Then, in June 2012, the new board voted to grant sweeping powers to Mayfield, giving him the right to “sign any and all acts, agreements, contracts, and documents that he deems fit and appropriate.” At the same time, they also rewrote the foundation’s bylaws, expanding its mission to support not just the public library, but also “literacy and community organizations.” Soon afterward, money started flowing to NOJO.

In 2012 and 2013, the Library Foundation awarded NOJO $666,000 and $197,000, respectively, from its $3.5 million endowment. WWL reported that internal emails revealed that the foundation directed an additional $375,000 to NOJO in 2011 without initially disclosing it on tax forms. During this period, Mayfield and Markham received annual salaries of between $100,000 and $200,000 each from NOJO.

In an email, Markham said that the foundation changed its bylaws “to broaden its scope and effectiveness.” He said NOJO intended to build a “storefront branch of the public library system” that was mentioned in the library system’s master plan dating back to 2008. The New Orleans Jazz Market offers free broadband, daytime concerts, literacy programming and a book collection of more than 700 titles — all of which have been used by an estimated 3,000 children since April 2015, he said.

“The future plans are to improve the existing programming to better serve the needs of the community,” he said.

Hurricane Katrina struck a near death blow to the New Orleans public library system. All 12 branches experienced devastating water and mold damage, and only a few were salvageable. Most staffers were displaced, and some had to return making less than they had before the storm. Tania Tetlow, the foundation board president Nagin fired and replaced with Mayfield, said that after the storm, the philanthropic community rallied to rebuild and within a few years had raised more than $7 million, with an additional $3.5 million secured for the endowment.

“No foundation gives away approximately a third of its endowment unless there’s a major crisis. Even if this somehow was the greatest, most important library project possible, which I can’t understand how it would be, Mayfield had a conflict of interest,” she said, adding: “There’s a special place in hell for people who steal from libraries.”

‘Significant deficiencies’

Although Markham insists that NOJO earmarked the foundation money for a good cause, “that does not change the fact that the money was taken from where it was supposed to have been spent and gone somewhere else, which makes for a classic federal prosecution case,” said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Aiding the federal case will probably be a state-commissioned financial audit of NOJO by LaPorte, a Baton Rouge accounting firm, that shows “significant deficiencies” in NOJO’s bookkeeping. A copy obtained by The Post notes that NOJO paid Mayfield’s production company for services totaling more than $300,000 combined for the fiscal years ending June 30 in 2014 and 2015 despite having no written agreement allowing the transaction. The audit also found “several areas wherein controls appeared to be deficient,” such as a lack of canceled invoices, proper coding of expenses and documentation for purchases made with a debit card.

“The business purposes of meal or travel transactions were not noted,” the audit states.

Overseeing the organization was the job of NOJO’s 20-member board, which is stacked with celebrities and dignitaries, including J. Kevin Poorman, a Chicago-based board member of the Barack Obama Foundation and chief executive of a private investment firm founded by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker; former Republican Party consultant Mary Matalin; and CNN personality Soledad O’Brien.

Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University who led the Corporation for National and Community Service under presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said that not only should Mayfield and Markham have recused themselves from decisions involving NOJO, but also that the NOJO board itself had an obligation “to oversee how that money was being used and where the money was coming from.”

“Boards have all sorts of problems. But you need a board that can say no. If it’s a board of people that are too close to the principal, or if there are too many of them, it can lead to some very bad mistakes in their decisions,” Lenkowsky said.

Enduring damage

Even if Mayfield and Markham are never charged with wrongdoing, the scandal has done irrefutable harm to the public library system. Brown, the new foundation chairman, said that donations have dropped to zero and that the endowment now dangles under $2 million. “We are tainted,” he said. Many philanthropists, including Carol Billings, a former head of the Louisiana Library Association, said she and her husband have stopped their annual giving.

“I’m so furious. I’m not giving them any more money that they can squander or use in an illegal way,” she said.

Gary Solomon, the chief executive of Crescent Bank & Trust and one of the city’s biggest philanthropists, said he is frustrated that NOJO didn’t pay back the full amount but instead offered to pay less than half. He blames Mayfield directly. “I’m so disappointed in that it seems to me that [Mayfield] abused that role in the foundation in a way I don’t think many nonprofits would allow,” he said.

But the insularity of New Orleans society may ultimately be to blame for so many conflicting interests serving each other at the same time.

Even Brown, who is policing the repayment on behalf of the Library Foundation, said he has cut ties with Mayfield, a longtime friend.

“If he calls me, I will not answer; if he emails me, I will not email him back,” Brown said.